Time and Date: 1 PM CT, 2 PM ET, November 13, 2021
Location: Rice Stadium - Houston, Texas
Spread: WKU -18
ESPN FPI: 89.7% in favor of Western Kentucky
All-time Series: WKU leads the series against Rice 2-0
Last meeting: WKU defeated Rice 46-14 in 2016
Evidenced by their record, this has been far from a perfect season for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. However, the Tops have won their last four contests with a score differential of at least 16. Graduate transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe leads all of FBS in passing yards (3713) and passing touchdowns with 37. The Tops also lead C-USA in scoring with 372 total points so far. This passing attack scores quickly and often.
Also of note for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Houston Baptist transfer receiver Jerreth Sterns is having one of the best individual seasons at the position in program history. Sterns has the most receptions in a single season of any WKU receiver with 104 and three games still to play. Sterns has also caught 11 touchdowns and totaled 1,276 receiving yards.
Thanks to their 6-3 overall, 4-1 league record, the Marshall Thundering Herd are currently atop C-USA East. However, WKU are a very close second in the division with a 5-4 overall, 4-1 league record. With three contests remaining, one of which is against the Herd, the Tops know their league title hopes rest on winning out.
The keys to victory for the Hilltoppers are to keep doing what they have been doing the last month offensively and to get off of the field. Rice lead C-USA in time of possession, both total and per game. The Tops defense was able to grab six interceptions last week against Middle Tennessee State, so it makes sense that Rice’s passing attack will be wary, at the very least, and rely on the run, which is something that the Tops have more trouble defending.
Rice certainly hasn’t hasn’t had the season that they had hoped for, but they’ve shown flashes of brilliance here and there. Currently 3-6, each of Rice’s last three games have been decided by one score. They pulled off a massive 30-24 upset against UAB on October 23rd, then followed it up with two straight losses to North Texas and Charlotte.
Rice’s weakness are somewhat glaring. They’ve allowed the second-most touchdowns in C-USA (42) and the second-most total points (323). On the other side of the ball, Rice’s offense aren’t scoring many points of their own. The Owls have scored just 174 points this season. The only team in C-USA that has scored less has been a depleted Southern Miss team.
Offensively, Jake Constantine continues to work in the starting quarterback role for the Owls. After playing in six games, Constantine has thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions. Keeping him protected in the pocket will be critical against a an effective group of WKU pass rushers that includes 2019 C-USA defensive player of the year DeAngelo Malone.
A bright spot for the Rice defense has been the performance of junior linebacker Antonio Montero. Montero has nine tackeles for loss on the season with 2.5 sacks. Following the Charlotte game, Montero was still optimistic about his team’s chances to finish the year strong. He was quoted by AtTheRoost.com as saying “there’s not a conference team that we can’t beat.”
While that quote is a great example of Montero’s leadership, saying it and doing it are two different things for this Rice team. The Owls’ best hope for Saturday is to keep the ball away from WKU’s offense as much as they can. They were able to do this very well in their signature win of the season against UAB when they had possession of the ball for more than 38 minutes while UAB had it for just 22.
No disrespect to the Charlotte 49ers, but if they were able to put up 292 passing yards and score three touchdowns against the Rice defense, then we can expect larger totals for Zappe and the Tops’ offense. Given the Tops’ offensive prowess and Rice’s defensive struggles, this could get ugly fairly quickly. Expect WKU to cover the spread in a victory.
WKU 48 - Rice 21